Have you ever wondered why they tell you “don’t pour cooking grease down the kitchen sink?” Or maybe “don’t flush paper towels down the toilet?” Well for the citizens of the Whitechapel district in London, they received those answers in titanic fashion. Whitechapel gained notoriety in the late 1880s as the location of the Jack the Ripper murders, but in 2017 a different menace was terrorizing the community, this time beneath the streets.
Lurking in the depths of the 47” by 27” sewer line was what experts had dubbed a “fatberg” that solidified and completely halted sewage flow through the pipe. A fatberg is a mass of fat, oils, greases, sanitary products, and contraceptives so large that it has to be compared to an iceberg. This particular behemoth of a blockage weighed in at a whopping 130 tonnes and measured 250 meters. For those of you not on the metric system, that is equal to 286,600 pounds and 820 feet. To put that in perspective this fatberg weighed the same as 10 fire trucks or 19 adult elephants. It weighed nearly as much as an adult blue whale, the largest mammal on Earth. And that 820-foot length? That’s over 2 (American) football fields long!
This congealed mass of waste products wasn’t exactly easy to remove either. When fats, oils, and greases cool down they solidify around all the other waste products in the sewer until they become nearly as hard as concrete. Removal of the Whitechapel fatberg took nine weeks as crews had to remove the blockage chunk by chunk and suck it through a hose. Instead of just disposing of it in a landfill, the fatberg was sent to a biofuel facility to turn it into usable energy. A representative of this biofuel facility estimated that the fatberg could have yielded up to 10,000 liters of fuel and some has already been used to power London buses. 1 liter of biofuel can replace 1 liter of diesel fuel, and that results in the savings of over 3 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
A London museum will be displaying parts of this fatberg as a learning tool and reminder of the calamity that can be caused by these disposal errors.
Strap on your boots and batten down the hatches – we’ve got another major hurricane on the way. The latest tempest comes in the form of Irma, which has the potential to be one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic. After it has already inundated several Caribbean islands, leaving streets flooded and a wake of destruction, Irma is setting her sights on the contiguous United States – first stop, Florida.
A state of emergency has already been declared in the sunshine state as this category 5 hurricane carries its 175+ mph winds and incalculable amounts of rain toward southern Florida. But predicting exactly where and how strong the hammer will fall is not quite crystal clear. Meteorologists run several models, such as the NAM, European, and GFS, to map the likely path of weather events but they often disagree. Running multiple models is helpful in providing a range of possible outcomes but they can only go so far, as the data used for the modeling is constantly changing. In the case of hurricanes, this makes it tough to figure out how your house will be affected and whether or not it will look like a newly discovered Atlantis. Despite the uncertainty, it is always a good idea to be on the safe side and prepare for the worst. The best way to do this is to incorporate effective stormwater management into the house/building design, but this takes weeks and months and is done during the planning and construction phase of a project. This proactive approach is good in theory but does little for people who rent or had no input into the design of their house. In these cases, measures should be taken to prevent and limit the amount of water that finds its way inside. This is typically achieved with sandbags at doors and other possible ingresses but those are usually in high demand. Even now parts of Florida are so strapped for sandbags that they are only giving out 10 per household. But there are other, more Macgyver-like measures to keep the inside of your house dry (see below).
- Plastic trash bags 1/3 filled with water make good substitutes for sandbags at doorways
- Paint cans or 5-gallon buckets can support and elevate your furniture if you are going to get water in your house
- Use duct tape to seal your garage door to the floor to prevent water intrusion
These options are good preventative measures but you should always heed the warnings and recommendations of local officials when dealing with the potential catastrophe of hurricanes. We all saw what happened with Harvey and no one wants a repeat with Irma. Stay safe and stay dry.